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ABS' Joyous Bach Festival

July 11, 2014

American Bach Soloists

Mary WilsonThe fifth annual American Bach Soloists Festival and Academy, which opened last weekend at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, brings the ensemble’s 25th season to a close with a series of concerts, public master classes, and lectures that continues through Sunday, July 20.

The Festival and Academy has become a distinguished tradition for ABS. The current festival, focusing on the theme of “Bach’s Inspiration,” started on Friday with the first of two concerts with works by composers who somehow influenced J.S. Bach (1685–1750). The variety of works and composers on the program showed that Bach sought and found musical inspiration in many places.

As a 20-year-old church organist, Bach traveled some 250 miles on foot from his home in Arnstadt to the city of Lübeck, with the sole purpose of visiting his older colleague Dieterich Buxtehude (1637–1707), to hear and study that esteemed composer’s music. Bach’s musical style changed as a result of what he learned from Buxtehude, who was represented on the ABS program by his cantata Jesu, meines Lebens Leben (Jesus, life of my life).

Another featured composer, Johann Kuhnau (1660–1722), is linked to Bach as his predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig and as the one who suggested that he use the title Clavier-Übung for four sets of keyboard pieces. Kuhnau had used it himself for a series of keyboard compositions that he published in 1689 and 1692. Kuhnau was represented in the festival by his cantata Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How lovely shines the morning star).

Having been born into a well-known family of musicians, Bach was, of course, also influenced via the family blood line. Friday’s concert opened with a piece from perhaps the most important and influential Bach before J.S., his first-cousin-once-removed Johann Christoph Bach (1642–1703).

His Es erhub sich ein Streit (There arose a war), written for 22 voices, opens with a vigorous Sonata for orchestra and continues with an elaborate musical “battle scene.” Building up from the lower voices in a martial three-quarter time, the piece ends in a jubilant, slightly over-the-top series of interweaving flourishes from the four trumpets and ecstatic outbursts in the chorus. It was not easy to absorb as a concert/festival opener.

The fifth verse, set for four-part chorus, was beautifully rendered by the members of the American Bach Choir.

More accessible was Buxtehude’s Jesu, meines Lebens Leben, with its mesmerizing ostinato (repeating) bass-motif and the goose bumps–inducing fifth verse that’s set for four-part chorus and that was beautifully rendered by the members of the American Bach Choir.

It was at this magical moment that the entire ensemble found itself united in some kind of “ABS Festival spirit.” Not that there wasn’t enough musical enjoyment to be found in the previous verses of the Buxtehude, with excellent singing by (in different combinations) soprano Mary Wilson, alto Judith Malafronte, bass-baritone Max van Egmond, and tenor Derek Chester, who subsequently showed more of his musical prowess as soloist in the aforementioned piece by Kuhnau.

My personal favorites of the evening were the two wind concertos on the program: one for Flute in C Major by none other than Frederick the Great (1712–1786), with soloist Sandra Miller on her mellow-toned Baroque flute; the other a Concerto for Oboe in D Minor by Italian composer Alessandro Marcello (1673–1747), masterfully played by Debra Nagy.

The performance was marked by beautiful ensemble work and a truly wonderful interaction between soprano Mary Wilson and countertenor Eric Jurenas, whose voices blended exquisitely together.

The link with Marcello lies in the fact that Bach once transcribed this oboe concerto for keyboard. The connection with the Prussian king was a little more artificial (because of Bach’s interest in musical life at various European courts of the day), but the “Festival Spirit” was generous and inclusive — and also forgiving of the occasional discrepancy in intonation, timing, and phrasing that occurred throughout the evening. Interestingly, these contributed to the liveliness of the concert.

To crown the evening, ABS’ artistic and music director, Jeffrey Thomas, had programmed Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden (Blot out, O God, my sins), which Bach adapted from the Stabat Mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736).

The genesis of this work is too involved to describe in a few words, but is most interesting. The piece itself, however, did not take away or replace fond memories of Pergolesi’s original piece.

Hearing a German text where listeners are used to the sound of Latin, set to music that is so very Italian, has an alienating effect. Bach’s reworking of Pergolesi’s celebrated sacred work resulted in a composition that is clearly quite different.

Be all that as it may, the performance itself was marked by beautiful ensemble work and a truly wonderful interaction between soprano Mary Wilson and countertenor Eric Jurenas, whose voices blended exquisitely together.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.